Designing Advisory for Resiliency
When schools are designing their advisory programs, and we encourage them to consider resiliency as an organizing theme, it rings a bell. We’ve heard it in urban and suburban schools. The urban teachers and school leaders we work with have students who must continually persevere in the face of under-resourced schools, schooling practices that focus on student deficits, poverty-related obstacles to learning (Tough, 2012), and a lack of knowledge and skills to envision and access a positive future. Many of their students are managing trauma without a full complement of support systems, skills for self-management, or learned optimism (Seligman, 1991).
The suburban teachers and school leaders we work with speak of students who are unhealthily competing for top grades and high-status roles, and for acceptance into the most exclusive high schools and universities. Their students face enormous pressures to measure up to unreasonable standards of perfection. Many of their students have what Madeline Levine calls “the toxic brew of pressure and isolation” from busy professional parents (Levine, 2006). Their students are managing intense stress, also without sufficient self-management skills, learned optimism, or effective supports.
All of these educators recognize that their students need resiliency to overcome significant daily challenges, to persevere on tasks, and to identify and reach their goals. They recognize Advisory as a structure that can nurture that resiliency. Ironically, too often, the ways schools and districts approach Advisory programs (among other initiatives), demonstrate a lack of adult and organizational resiliency to do just what we want students to do: set clear and reasonable goals, harness resources, initiate plans, expect growing pains, adjust along the way, and persevere.
Many educators know schools that have “tried Advisory, and it didn’t work.” We recently asked one of these schools how long they “tried” it – the program was cut after only one-and-a-half years. As we uncovered more of their story, we learned that the program was launched with earnest preparation, but without professional development for all advisors, and without mechanisms to collect feedback and adjust the content and routines as needed. When students stumble, we want them to dust themselves off, consider what they could do better, forgive their own mistakes, and try again. We need to hold the same expectations for adults and school programs.
This school’s story of trying Advisory is ten years old, but still carries intense emotions: anger, sense of failure, suspicion towards new initiatives. The intervening decade was punctuated with traumatic events among the students, multiple leadership changes, and divisive and acrimonious experiences that significantly damaged the adult culture. After this decade a small group of people were willing to reopen the discussion of trying Advisory again. We posed a question to the new Advisory design team: “What does it say about the implementation process and your faculty that people still feel so charged about what happened so long ago?” Our discussion surfaced many issues with the implementation, the leadership, the faculty climate, and the weight of expectations on the Advisory program.
In ways that parallel the different challenges to resiliency for students in affluent suburbs and in under-resourced urban schools, our discussions with the adults from these different communities reveal unique pressures. An advisor in a suburban school said, “We are accustomed to being excellent at everything we do. This new advisor role is really stressful.” The assistant principal in that school, after seven months of observing their new Advisory groups, said, “I love working with teachers who hold themselves to high standards. But I keep hearing that teachers are holding themselves to an unreasonable and unspoken standard that’s about being excellent, every time, the first time through.” Such immediate success is neither likely nor does its expectation demonstrate resiliency.
From urban educators, we often hear that they feel overwhelmed with the learning challenges and traumas in their students’ lives. Some are reminded of traumas in their own pasts – the experiences they have in common with their students are both what drew them to teach in urban schools and what gets repeatedly triggered from their own backgrounds. A principal recounted another obstacle to resiliency: “My faculty should be helping students learn about and feel entitled to our [the adults’] resources, access, and opportunities. But sometimes we sink to a mindset of poverty.” It can be very difficult for urban educators to feel optimistic, empowered, and resilient.
The obstacles to resiliency raised in each of those adult scenarios are addressable via Advisory – on behalf of the adults and the students – if it is implemented effectively. Advisory needs to be designed well, certainly, but it also needs to be reshaped over time. Like any new program, no design team, just as no student, should be measured against unrealistic standards of perfection, expecting that they can foresee all needs and plan a perfect program. And, no adult should expect to instantly have the skills needed to be a great advisor. Resiliency includes assessing, problem solving, and continual improvement. It also includes on-going support for and development of advisors. Resiliency is a learned habit for students, adults, and for organizations.
An Advisory program designed for resiliency
Using the Advisory design puzzle from The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools, we have helped schools implement new Advisory programs or diagnose struggling ones (Poliner and Lieber, 2004.) The goals of Advisory programs often include supporting academic success, building community, post-secondary planning, social-emotional learning, and responding to tragedies. Here we will discuss the design puzzle with a focus on resiliency.
The Advisor Role
We’ve seen many faculties shift to a new curriculum, a new schedule, a new principal, or a new school structure. Each shift carries different challenges and growth. The implementation of Advisory calls for a stretch of the traditional teacher’s role, stretching it to focus not primarily on content, but rather on the kids themselves. An effective advisory session might have activities, discussions, and routines – familiar territory to teachers – but they are tied to an aspect of youth development or community building. It is not surprising that many new advisors would feel awkward.
We’ve heard some advisors describe their awkwardness in the new role as if it were a permanent state and therefore a program flaw. Do they see a parallel with a student who is certain that today’s teenage drama is also permanent? We see other advisors altering plans so the activities are more like class – the advisor’s comfort zone. An English teacher might replace a “turn-and-talk” with writing three sentences, or a teacher might keep the chairs in rows instead of forming a circle so that advisees can face each other. These teachers may feel more comfortable in the short term, but they are not taking the risk of learning to be an advisor.
Wynton Marsalis said in a 60 Minutes interview, “…if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying” (60 Minutes, Jan 10 2011). This is sound advice for students and for advisors. Advisors, both new and experienced, need to be resilient: to expect to stumble at times; to be uncomfortable or awkward; to work at improving; to forgive themselves for mistakes. The questions we ask ourselves and Advisory design teams are: How can we help advisors learn these skills and attitudes? How can the design team and principal implement a process to promote their stretching to this new role?
As a starting point, the advisor role needs to be articulated. Even when resiliency is a goal, design teams need to determine if resiliency will focus on academics, teen risks, envisioning and accessing a positive future, managing stress, or providing a reliable support system after a crisis. Regarding discipline challenges, the advisor could be directly involved or a behind-the-scenes coach. Advisors can play a central role for making referrals and for being in contact with parents and caregivers. If advisors are unclear about the responsibilities and limits of their role, they may shape their role around personal preferences instead of the larger vision for the program (Bolman and Deal, 2003).
Content, Formats, Rituals, and Materials
Krovetz lists four common attributes among resilient people: social competence, problem-solving skills, skills for autonomy, and sense of purpose and future (Krovetz 1999). Advisory sessions and routines can be planned to nurture these attributes. Students can talk with each other and with the advisor about challenges, and how to problem-solve those challenges, the most obvious example of a resiliency-focused session. This approach is a common practice in “Community Seminar” groups at Natick (MA) High School. Some specific practices are important to note: advisees listen carefully and respectfully, have creative problem solving conversations, utilize self-assertion skills to seek support, with a sense of safety underlying the whole discussion. It is important to note that the Natick HS program took many steps and a few years to introduce and establish these practices.
To encourage resiliency, the advisory can include exercises and discussions about hobbies, passions, and future career ideas. It can include collaborative service projects. It should include discussions, reflections, and exercises to expand advisees’ planning, self-assessment, negotiation, and communication skills. Formats and rituals that promote teambuilding and leadership build social competencies. Rituals for sharing stories, hopes, losses, and triumphs are opportunities to learn about giving and getting support. Establishing these rituals is of critical importance for when crises inevitably arise.
If resiliency is a goal of Advisory, then all of the design elements have to be in sync. It takes time to tell personal stories, sustain problem-solving discussions, and participate in meaningful exercises and projects. Both Washburne Middle School in Winnetka, IL and Needham (MA) High School made changes to their Advisory schedule when they decided that resiliency would be a goal.
Washburne Middle School has had Advisory since the 1920’s. During the early 2000’s the program focused primarily on academics. Only core subject area teachers served as advisors, and groups met at the end of every day for short blocks of time. That time slot was sufficient to check on assignments, overdue homework, and backpacks. An effort began in 2008 to refocus Advisory on social and emotional learning (SEL). After much research and exploration, the school redesigned their program around four R’s of Relationships, Responsibility, Resilience, and Reflection, redesigned the schedule and shifted advisory to twice per week for 30 minutes to be able to incorporate the activities needed.
Needham High School was not prepared to reinvent their school schedule; few schools have that luxury. Instead, they augmented their daily mid-morning ten-minute advisory meetings with monthly 40-minute blocks of time. Brad Walker, the SEL Committee chair, explains, “Because we have a complicated rotating schedule, the advisor is the only adult who sees a given student every day. Our daily meetings allow for advisor-advisee contact and check-ins, while our monthly meetings allow for longer discussions, community building, and skill-building experiences.”
Fostering resiliency requires advisors to know their students as individuals, including the many hurdles they face. Therefore, small groups align best when there is an emphasis on resiliency. Advisor Marc Seiden from Boston Green Academy, a new in-district charter school in the Boston Public Schools, described the school’s grouping dilemma: “Because of our space constraints, we had really big advisory groups – 20 or so kids. All groups had two advisors, but it didn’t matter. Kids would get to the room, see it was a big group, which felt like a class, so they acted like it was a class – passive, deferring authority – instead of acting like it was advisory – sharing ownership and participating.” Several BGA Advisory groups opted to split in two, finding alternative spaces to meet, even when those spaces were less than ideal. They made group cohesion the priority.
Grouping involves not just the size of the group, but also the mix and the continuity. Some schools have grade-level groups; others have mixed-grade groups. Both arrangements have worked. However, all of the schools mentioned keep their groups together as long as they can, looping over multiple years. The first time advisors reach their third or fourth year with the same group, many experience a sense of connection they have not been able to develop in a single academic year. Denise Trubiano, chairperson of Natick’s Community Seminar committee, recounted a discussion from a recent committee meeting: “We noted the shift in culture at our school over the last decade since we implemented Advisory. That our groups include students from grades 9-12, staying with the same advisor all four years, frequently engaging in our highs-and-lows ritual [celebrating accomplishments and problem-solving challenges], and advisees having leadership roles – these are all interdependent factors in the culture shift.”
School leaders and design teams need to provide thorough professional development to prepare advisors to lead discussions, activities, and to coach advisees. For example, Needham HS spent a year focused on advisor communication and coaching skills. Their goal was to model in adult language the belief that what mattered most was effort and perseverance, two hallmarks of resiliency. The school’s leadership team read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Readings on “growth mindset versus fixed intelligence mindset” were shared with the entire faculty in multiple workshops led by Advisory committee members. Further, the principal, Jonathan Pizzi, focused instructional rounds on how resiliency could be fostered in classroom practices throughout the day. The attention to faculty development generated such changes as the staff setting a goal to avoid saying “good luck” to students, because they wanted to underscore in every way that success was about effort and preparation, not the capriciousness of luck. Resiliency is not about luck.
Linkage to the school mission and context
The values promoted in advisory need to be expressed throughout the school. Advisory is not just a slot of time; it can be a culture-shaping platform for students’ experience of the school. It is not however, a bandage. If the rest of the school day results in students feeling isolated, anonymous, and defeated, then those sensations can overwhelm a short, infrequent attempt to build community and resiliency. To link Advisory and its values to the school as a whole, schools should consider their orientation programs for new students and induction efforts for new teachers, how Advisory connects with guidance counseling, how it connects to school-wide student voice and leadership, whether school spirit events foster positive spirit or grade-level hazing, and whether discipline and academic practices represent a growth philosophy.
As the saying goes, change is inevitable; learning is optional. In the absence of learning, the stress from change corrodes the effectiveness of school structures, wears down faculty, and harms students (Siegel, 1999).
Every Advisory program will change over time. It will change because the coordinating team is assessing what is and isn’t working well in materials, scheduling, grouping, and every other design aspect. It will change because a new challenge or opportunity has arisen. It will change because advisors in their third year are ready for topics and formats that would have been too big a stretch in their first year. Assessment through surveys, focus groups, walk-throughs, and other feedback systems are crucial to promote learning and effective change. They demonstrate the resilient expectation for change, problem solving, and improvement.
Using Advisory to foster resiliency among students and adults
In order for an Advisory program to be a breeding ground for student resiliency, the school community must be resilient in its capacity to plan, implement, and nurture advisories. Washburne MS has maintained Advisory through many changes for almost one hundred years. Needham HS started “Mentor Homeroom” in 1993. Since its beginning, it has altered the goals of the program, its grouping schema, schedule, content, and professional development several times.
A lack of institutional resiliency can be striking – when, for example, a school or district starts an initiative, doesn’t follow through on continuous improvement, shifts focus to a replacement initiative a few years later, only to be replaced yet again a few years after that. Research on grit offers this insight: long-term success requires long-term stamina, “picking a specific goal in the distant future and not swerving from it.” (Duckworth, 2009) Schools and districts need to model long-term stamina when implementing Advisory. Immediate success on all fronts is unlikely in any new curriculum or program. We expect students to bounce back from a disappointing test, recommit to their best study habits, and try again. Advisory has the capacity to nurture that necessary resiliency in students, which perhaps more than ever, is a required outcome of schooling. School and district leaders, in turn, must demonstrate resiliency to nurture advisory programs through the inevitable stressors from planning and implementation to expanded roles and established practices.
The good news is that we can have – and model for students – long-term stamina and vision, continuous assessment and improvement, and dedication to supportive communities. School structures can present many challenges to resiliency: the high-stakes testing, the breadth of required curriculum, the sheer numbers of people in one building. When a school takes time and space for Advisory, it is saying that knowing and supporting kids is at the center of their mission – a cornerstone of fostering resiliency.
While working on this article, the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent million-person lock-down took place on the Monday and Friday of school vacation week. When school reopened three days later, we saw varied responses: instructions to not talk about the events; instructions leaving teachers on their own to choose whether or not to have conversations; instructions for advisors with discussion prompts, counseling resources, and a longer than usual Advisory meeting. Without the structures and rituals of an Advisory program, some students learned that tough topics aren’t discussed and students are on their own. With effective Advisories, others learned that they could talk about their experiences, get support, give support, and become stronger.
Sadly, the world today, and teenagers’ worlds too often, involve tragedies. If we want young people to be resilient, we need structures in place that provide students and teachers the skills and practices for dealing with tough times.
- Bolman, L. and Deal, T. (2003) Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Duckworth, A. quoted in “The Truth about Grit.” Lehrer, J. (2009) Boston MA: The Boston Globe.
- Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York City: Random House.
- Krovetz, M. (1999) Fostering Resiliency: Expecting All Students to Use Their Minds and Hearts Well. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Levine, M. (2006) The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York City: Harper Collins.
- Poliner, R. and Miller Lieber, C. (2004) The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.
- Seligman, M. (1991) Learned Optimism. New York City, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers.
- Siegel, D. (1999) The Developing Mind. New York City: The Guilford Press.
- Tough, P. (2012) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York City: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co.